Who Invented the Term “Search Engine Optimization”? Part Deux

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I created an entry for “Bruce Clay” at Wikipedia for the group of articles called “Famous SEOs” which are listed at the entry for “Search Engine Optimization

 One of the things that come to mind when talking about Bruce is the fact, correction, assumption that he coined the phrase “Search Engine Optimization” to describe to other people what he was doing.

 That was at a time when there was no SEO industry as it is today.


Since you can not simply make bold statements about somebody at Wikipedia without referencing to a reliable source that confirms it. Sooner or later must the statement be removed.

 A fellow Wikipedian with the name Jonathan Hochman aka Jehochman did it this weekend actually. He is one of the active editors I do work together on the SEO entry, among others like Bill Slawsky from SEO by the Sea.


We started a discussion and got Bruce Clay himself to provide some information to this matter. He provided some tips to what to look for and I started some researching.

 Bruce said that Danny Sullivan declared at one time that Bruce invented the term, but I can’t find any reference for it.


The “hunt” for the origin of the term was once on in 2004 already. I found this old thread at the Search Engine Watch Forums titled: Who Invented the Term “Search Engine Optimization”?

Danny did some research back them and provided some good material. Bruce was mentioned in this set of researched data, but the thread ended without a conclusion or announcement.

If any of you know the reference where the announcement was made, please add a comment to this post with the URL to it.

Some people back them thought that Danny, “the Father of SEO” coined the term, but Danny himself stated that this is not the case and also seasoned veterans vehement refused that as this old Webmaster World thread shows.


No way! We were calling it SEO in early ’97, and that was before Danny was on the radar….
Danny was the first to publicly write about it though…

During my trip back in time did I dig up some other old stuff that is very interesting and probably forgotten by most people.

For example, did you know that before Search Engine Optimization became the official term, other terms were used as well. Here are some examples:

  • website promotion
  • search engine placement
  • Search Engine Ranking
  • search engine submission
  • search engine registration
  • search engine positioning

And did you know that Mr.Sullivan himself was promoting a change of the name SEO to SEM (Search Engine Marketing)?

He published in his eZine “THE SEARCH ENGINE REPORT Vol. 60” from November 5, 2001 the article titled “Congratulations! You’re A Search Engine Marketer!.”

The Article suggested the name change because of the results of a poll on the I-Search mailing list in September 2001 where various terms were suggested to the readers with the request to pick their favorite term.

The link to the complete survey results does unfortunately not work anymore, but the top two are mentioned in the article itself.

*”search engine marketing” 39%
*”search engine optimization” 35%

He reinforced his suggestion with the article “Search Engine Marketing: You Like It, You Really Like It” from December 3, 2001 where he argued why other terms do not fit the description of what he and other marketers were doing. Very interesting.

As we all know today, the Term Search Engine Optimization is still in use and here to stay for a while longer. Search Engine Marketing is also used but is more associated with Paid Search. The two terms co-exist peacefully today and I have not heart about another attempt to change the Term Search Engine Optimization to something else.

Its funny how you can dig up old stories like this one when you do a little research for a Wikipedia entry. Keep in mind that Wikipedia is a place where anybody who wants to contribute is welcome to do so.

Search Engine Optimization and Marketing are areas at Wikipeda that are still weak. Look at articles under the Category “Search Engine Optimization”.

That’s all there is today. Feel free to hop over and add some content. Every commercial topic is “Hot” at Wikipedia due to Spam. I advice you to create an Account first and not edit those articles anonymously.

Adding an external link to an article is also no contribution. Wikipedia is not a Web Directory. Take the time to read some of the guidelines or ask other editors. Having a look at the “Talk Page” of an article (every page has one) is always a good idea to find out what’s going on. Thank you.

Carsten Cumbrowski has years of experience in Affiliate Marketing and knows both sides of the business as the Affiliate and Affiliate Manager. Carsten has over 7 years experience in Web Development and 20 years in programming and computers in general. He has a personal Internet Marketing Resources site at Cumbrowski.com which also includes Search Engine Optimization Resources.

Carsten Cumbrowski
Carsten Cumbrowski has years of experience in Affiliate Marketing and knows both sides of the business as the Affiliate and Affiliate Manager. Carsten has over... Read Full Bio
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  • David Temple

    Carsten, nice article. Good to see the conversation on wikkipedia but sorry you couldn’t come up with a definite answer. Sounds like Bruce did come up with the term but like you say there is no real documentation. Nevertheless I much rather prefer the term “search marketing” and drop the engine since people can find you by searching in directories, other sites, etc. I bet you uncovered some real nuggets regarding the early years and maybe you can share them in a historical perspective of seo someday.

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Hi David,

    Thanks for the positive comment.

    Regarding the Idea of dropping the word “engine” from “search engine marketing” and call it “search marketing”.

    Mike Grehan made a suggestion like that in his article “Stinking Linking Vs. Creative Thinking” back in June at Clickz.com

    I disagreed with that. You can read my comment here. (last comment on the page)

    It was only a side note in the article (which is interesting all by itself).


  • graywolf

    I believe Bruce says he invented the term in this podcast with Monte Kahn


  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Hi Michael, That’s not exactly the reference we are looking for, but thanks for the effort 🙂

    I am almost certain that I heart Danny saying it at the Daily SearchCast or Todd or Greg at the SEO Rockstars, but that is also not good enough.

    Something like the old SEW thread I referred to, but where it concludes that Bruce must have been responsible (don’t start one 😉 ).

  • Dave

    This is really kind of funny. In 1997, Yahoo Directory was king. SEO was nothing more than registering domain names with “a” or “1” or “!” as the first character – like the Yellow Pages.

    Once google came online, SEO was nothing more than registering keywords with dashes and submiting to the Yahoo directory. Search-Engine-Optimization.com would be a guaranteed #1 in Google back then.

    To coin a phrase for something that was so easy (during the dates discussed) does not seem very important. My guess is the term did not come about until the practice became a challenge.

  • Paul J. Bruemmer

    I had approached Andy Bourland and Anne Handly in 1999, to write articles for their new online Internet Marketing publishing company ClickZ. I took a look at the archives and the soonest I can find a reference to “search engine optimization” at ClickZ is 12-21-99; http://www.clickz.com/showPage.html?page=819251

    The term “Search engine positioning” was used prior to “search engine optimization” which became popular at some point in 1999 (to my recollection).

    As far as who invented the term; that would be very difficult to determine…there was a lot going on at the time.

  • Jonathan Hochman

    This is an interesting question and it will be valuable when we finally get to the bottom of it. I have emailed Danny, who is on vacation. Presumably, when he gets back he will answer.

    What we need is for somebody to go “on the record” at some sort of publication that has editorial oversight. I believe a well-travelled forum would be fine if all the regulars will chirp in and say “yes.” Once we have that source, the fact can go into Wikipedia, and the matter will be settled. (yeah)

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Hey Paul, thanks.

    Did you read the thread at SEW from 2004? Danny found already references dating back to December 1997. He assumed early to mid-1997 as time frame to look for it.

    Hi Jonathan 🙂

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    And Jonathan, that what you said about the “yes” source in a forum must have happened already according to Bruce.

    I could not find a thread that followed up with this. Shoot!!

    What is the best SE that indexes everything to get a back link reference. Google is worthless all the posts are already supplemental. It shows no back links.

    That’s where it’s woryj looking. Lets check some crap Search Engines 🙂

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    I noticed that some got confused with the links. I changed the link that pointed to the forum homepage to the old thread as well. Hello “High Rankings Forum :)”. Sorry for that.

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  • Andrew Goodman

    Paul Bruemmer’s account sounds about right. Search Engine Positioning had been the first accepted term for the practice, reinforced by Marckini’s book of that title.

    Keep in mind, also, the fact that Webposition was already selling its product in 1998, and the term “positioning” got a huge boost from that.

    It would have taken some convincing by someone influential to argue that *positioning* was misleading. My memory tells me Danny might have been that influencer — not to say he was the first to use the term SE optimization, but that he endorsed its use.

    Then again, I almost suspect some journalist came up with the term, in a hastily written article in some major publication, and others began adopting it. Kind of like a genetic mutation where the person stuck in a term they felt was better than “positioning,” and it fit well with what the strategic actors in the space thought would sound better to clients, so the thing stuck.

    Or, some now defunct SEO firm decided to sell using this term. Or it was a secondary term sometimes used by the likes of i-prospect, and then it spread to many copycat sales pitches. Or, Bruce Clay really was the first – and again, it spread like wildfire (accelerated by Danny’s usage of the term?).

    It doesn’t seem that the term was used in 1996 or before that – if you search for “optimizing for Altavista” or “Optimizing for Webcrawler” or “Optimizing for Infoseek” you don’t get any results from their heydays.

    Unfortunately the Wayback Machine is down right now so I’m thwarted on that front.

    It’s amazing how entrenched the acronym “SEO” became. I get called one sometimes, and I hate it. 🙂

  • Andrew Goodman

    And yes, I realize I’m late to this party. Just catching up on some old correspondence.

    It’s a bit sad to see that so far, the earliest occurrence found (by Danny) is a spam message in Dec. 1997, to Usenet so characteristic of so many of the subsequent “SEO companies” (not all of course). In the flaming promo, the spammer actually spells one of the search engines’ names (Magellan) incorrectly. 🙁

    Lots of other forum discussions on this, including High Rankings, who are particularly hot on the trail. I should have known MMG’ers were probably behind some of this, but it took awhile before the term “stuck”. I seem to recall it naturally spread from firm to firm offering remarkably similar services, and it stuck because it sounded technical to clients, IMHO.

  • Carsten Cumbrowski

    Thanks for your comments Andrew. I guess we will never know for sure who “coined” the name SEO. Well, it was interesting to look back though hehe.

    It’s funny that I get into this “research” because of a little “tag” saying “citation needed”, which was added to the Wikipedia article for Bruce Clay where it used to claim that he coined the term. Well, that claim was removed from the article. That is how it should work in Wikipedia… it often does, but unfortunately does not just as much.

  • Deborah

    I spend so much of my time explaining what search engine optimization is and what it means….now I have a list of people I can potentially thank for that!

    ha thanks!

  • Craig Miller

    I didn’t understand where the term came from, anyway was pretty interesting the info about seo and sem.

    Craig Miller
    internet marketing specialist

  • WillStewart

    how strong is becoming this strategy! besides some great designs in web banner advertising surely you’ll get the top of the market

  • Ryan Govindan

    Nice Article. I got the reference from Digg and really found it interesting to know the History of term “Search Engine Optimization”. I start knowing this term in 1999. But I am really not sure who tossed this term.

  • James Stratford @JRStratford (Twitter)

    Nice article! That evolution started early on the web, but only among non visible, non famous techies. But there have always been a lot of words for it. It brought back old memories of a friend of mine and I discussing it long ago.

    It became mainstream much later in the progression since it became more of an art and science mix than it used to be. The Secret Warrior Forums used it back in about 1994, but I doubt they have archives since it’s so many years later and now it’s “The Warriors” Alan Says may know.

  • Shelley Sanders

    Funny you can do something for a living and never think about where it came from. Thought provoking article.

  • Sameer

    Thanks for this really nice article.

  • Jhon Perker

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